The connected car: How to design compelling apps without causing accidents

The average American spends more than two hours a day in the car. If you’re like me, you probably spend a good chunk of the remaining 22 hours each day interacting with computers, smartphones and tablets. Human nature being what it is, we don’t want to cut ourselves off from these useful — some might say addictive — communication, information and entertainment devices for the 15 or so hours we spend inside a car each week.

From working at XM Satellite Radio to leading Rhapsody’s music service and later launching the Internet-connected GPS device Dash, I have spent most of my career in pursuit of one goal: to deliver the connected information and entertainment content people want to their driver’s seat. In my my current role leading Aha by Harman, I believe the “connected car” industry’s biggest challenge is to provide the mobile apps and services that consumers want in a way that makes safety the top priority. To do that, we have to look beyond interface design and consider human behavior.

Automobile makers understand people’s desire to be connected. As a result, some of their newer, more technically advanced automotive infotainment systems are starting to resemble smartphones and tablets on wheels, featuring large capacitive touch-screen displays. The problem, of course, is that a car is neither a phone nor a tablet. It’s a two-ton hunk of steel and glass that has to be maneuvered safely through traffic.

Two schools of thought have emerged. One is to ban or severely restrict the use of distractive technology while driving. We all know how well that works. A recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of young drivers admit to texting while driving, and laws requiring drivers to use hands-free mobile phone headsets don’t seem to have had much effect, based on casual observation of cars driving past my office in Palo Alto, Calif.

The other approach is to design new user interfaces — the modern, digital versions of buttons and knobs and dials — that provide the same general functions of smartphones and tablets while minimizing distractions for the driver. There have been promising advances in voice recognition and controls — Apple’s Siri is one emerging example, Dragon from Nuance is another — but the technology is still in the training-wheel stage.

There’s also a huge challenge: If the controls for these new dashboard information centers are either too complex or fail to quickly deliver the information one wants, drivers will simply skip the car’s built-in systems and go back to using their handheld phones and tablets while driving. We’ve got to make the automobile interfaces compelling enough to persuade drivers to put aside their smartphones, but not so compelling as to divert attention away from the road ahead.

Adding to the challenge, the technology in our pockets is advancing faster than a Ferrari down Highway 101. Apple comes out with a new and improved and more alluring iPhone every year, while the information system built into your dashboard is locked in for as long as you own the car, which today is an average of six years. Even if your new car comes with today’s latest whiz-bang technology features, it will seem outdated a few years from now when your new iPhone 10 has a 3D holographic display and a mind-reading interface.

We know what won’t work: millions of drivers hurtling down the road while poking, swiping and typing on touch screens for email, text messages, podcasts, driving directions, global streaming radio, restaurant reservations, social media feeds and the like.

But we also know what has worked in the past. Generations of drivers have managed to stay relatively safe while reaching for the volume knob on a car radio, or pushing a preset button or switching from AM to FM to CD to Sirius/XM satellite radio. Current physical dashboard commands — up arrow, down arrow, right arrow forward, left arrow back and so on — are familiar and easy to operate, and certainly less distracting than a touch-screen display whose user interface requires the driver to slide a finger precisely along a path. The key will be to map a diverse array of new digital services and applications to familiar human behaviors that minimize the distractions for the driver. It’s been exciting to see major car makers such as Acura, Honda and Subaru (disclosure: all are Aha partners) move in this direction with their infotainment systems in 2013 model year vehicles.

Paradoxically, the solution might be to go back to dedicated buttons that don’t require taking one’s eyes off the road. Video game developers learned long ago that when aliens are attacking, a single “Fire!” button works much better than a sequence of CTRL-ALT-whatever keystrokes.

Another design strategy might be to eliminate, or at least limit, interface elements that require the driver to respond immediately, or to retain sequences of information that are cognitively demanding. When the user is sitting at his desk at work, he has no problem tapping out sequences like “Show me reviews for all the three-star Chinese restaurants within five miles,” and “Make a reservation.” “How many people?” “Four.” “What time? Your options are 6:30, 7:15 and 7:45.” When the user is driving in rush hour traffic, such extended interactions are a recipe for an accident.

Above all, the goal of interface design in automobile-based services must be safety. A decade ago, researchers at Harvard estimated that drivers talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 other injury accidents the previous year. That was before the iPhone and iPad, before Facebook, before just about all the mobile apps we now can’t imagine living without. The question now is, can we live with them in the car?

In the car of the future, these concerns might not matter. The biggest advance in automobile safety will come from replacing human drivers with radar, LIDAR, GPS, computer vision and robotic chauffeurs. At that point, we’ll all be passengers, free to sit back and touch, swipe and immerse ourselves from here to Grandma’s house. But these are far-off concepts.

Until then, we have to figure out how to design compelling apps that are safe for human drivers to use. We don’t have the answer yet, but we do have a huge opportunity.

Robert Acker has been an entrepreneur in the connected car space for more than 14 years. In his current role with global infotainment company, Harman, Acker and his team are developing and launching Aha, which turns Web content into on-demand radio stations. 

Robert Acker will be discussing the connected-car experience onstage at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference on September 20.

Image courtesy of Flickr user